The Phoenix Coyotes were last year's feel good story. With all the offseason turmoil surrounding the team Wayne Gretzky stepped down and Dave Tippett took over as head coach during training camp. Not many people were picking them to do much of anything except let the uncertainty get to them and finish in the basement. Of course that's not at all what happened.
Rather than let the pressure get to them, the team rallied around each other and had the best season in Coyotes history. Other than the outstanding goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov there wasn't one star player that made everything happen. It was scoring by committee and locking down with team defense and checking that made it very difficult for the opposition. The Coyotes had one of the lowest Goals Against per game in the league behind only New Jersey and Boston. Much of that credit does go to Bryz, but also to guys like Martin Hanzal, Shane Doan and Vernon Fiddler who locked down opposing scorers.
While media outlets and assorted "experts" waited for the floor to fall out from under the Coyotes' run, the team just kept pushing along. In the end they had 50 wins and 107 points good enough for 4th seed in the Western Conference. That was a huge achievement but drew them the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. In a back and forth series the team had games where they looked dominant, but in the end couldn't finish off the Wings getting blown out in game 7. One big reason was the loss of Shane Doan to a shoulder injury midway through the series. He had set the tone in the earlier games hitting every Red Wing that touched the puck. You can bet he'll be hungry to return to the postseason again this year after bowing out like that.
Depth - For once the Coyotes aren't this far in training camp and just competing to see which of the 4th liners can push other 4th liners to San Antonio. There are quality guys fighting it out for important spots and everyone is competing extremely hard.
Goaltending - If not for an outstanding Olympics for Ryan Miller, which shouldn't factor in but really elevated his publicity, Ilya Bryzgalov likely would have won the Vezina trophy last season. Part of the reason had to be the change of goalie coaches from Grant Fuhr to Sean Burke. Burke is physically much more like both starter Bryzgalov and backup Jason LaBarbera and can better tutor them. Bryzgalov was second in the league in shutouts, third in wins and 6th in GAA. LaBarbera was solid in the starts he took with an 8-5-1 record. With some new faces on defense and the loss of shot blocker Zbynek Michalek the netminders will need another strong year.
Team Defense - With Dave Tippett at the helm the team everyone has to play defense. Tippett builds teams that like to hit, focus on their defensive responsibilities first and hit constantly. We've got a team that get's physical, goes after those hard pucks and makes life difficult for the opposition scoring lines
Star Power - As opposed to many teams around the league the Coyotes don't have that one guy that can be counted on the score every game or carry the team for long stretches. Sure captain Shane Doan is a great leader and player, but he's not a 50 goal scorer. The Coyotes will again score by committee but have more than a few guys that can rack them up near the 30 goal mark. Scottie Upshall, Radim Vrbata and Lee Stempniak could all add their goals up quickly.
Blueline Youth - While our young guys look very good back there so far in camp the 6th and 7th spots will be held by players with very little NHL experience. As Coyote fans may remember from Keith Yandle, even players that are very good go through some NHL growing pains which are often not pretty. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has looked very good playing with Adrian Aucoin and David Schlemko has some NHL playing time under his belt, but only a handful of game.
Expectations - The Coyotes haven't had any in quite a long time. There's still not much local pressure from media or sources other than the fans hopes, but nationally and from the Canadian media everyone is wondering if the Coyotes can do it again. Much like last year there will be those reporters that are just waiting for the team to crumble because it makes for good bylines, but the team has also garnered some measure of respect in preseason rankings from TSN, The Hockey News and elsewhere. The underdog card won't work quite the same way anymore so the team wll have to dig down and find other motivation.
Center: Martin Hanzal, Vernon Fiddler, Eric Belanger. Kyle Turris and Kyle Wellwood are battling for that last starting center spot. Andrew Ebbett is still around, but... no.
Left Wing: Ray Whitney, Wojtek Wolski, Lauri Korpikoski, Taylor Pyatt, Paul Bissonnette . Viktor Tikhonov is still trying to push someone out to make the team. Korpikoski is the likely target as he hasn't done much of anything in camp yet.
Right Wing: Shane Doan, Scottie Upshall, Radim Vrbata, Petr Prucha, Lee Stempniak, Mikkel Boedker. Prucha typically plays with Vrabta on the opposite wing, but there are rumblings that Boedker could push him to the trading block.
Defense: Keith Yandle, Derek Morris, Ed Jovanovski, Adrian Aucoin, Sami Lepisto, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, David Schlemko. Maxim Goncharov is still in camp as well, but Ekman-Larsson is way ahead in the prospect race.
Goalie: Ilya Bryzgalov, Jason LaBarbera. Al Montoya and Matt Climie in San Antonio
In my opinion the Coyotes are batter this season than last. Ray Whitney brings a bucket of assists and our youth could explode on defense. However, teams will be ready for them from game one this year and that will probably mean a drop off in points. The team will still make the playoffs, but likely a spot or two below where they were at 5th or 6th. Ilya Bryzgalov will be very close to his statistics from last year and One of our talented wingers will find that scoring touch and get 40 goals. It's a toss up on which of those it'll be though. If Whitney to Vrbata on the power play looks anything during the year like it has in camp Radim could have another career year here in Phoenix.